The Impact of Writers When Literacy is Dead by Allie Burke

In my Journalism studies, I was tasked with writing a research paper about community. While I wrote the piece simply for the assignment, the process of writing it, and the final product, ultimately gave me hope when considering the unique opportunity writers in the mental health community have to change the world. So I wanted to share it with all of you. -Allie

In his essay, Kentucky Writers in Kentucky, Wendell Berry discusses the potential impact that writers can have in a world, or community—of Kentucky in this specific case—that may no longer value literacy. With their writing, many writers have supported positive change in their communities and in society as a whole, including Toni Morrison and Hunter S. Thompson. With passion for an idea, writers have an invaluable impact they can contribute to the world. Writers who utilize the impact of literacy to support a community—whether that be a local community in Berry’s case or a more diverse community such as those affected by mental illness, racial disparities, or other current issues that demand awareness—will create positive change in society.

In Kentucky Writers in Kentucky, Berry writes, due to a “problem that relates immediately to the hope for a sustainable and sustaining human culture in Kentucky,” that we are “perhaps at the end of the age of literacy.” He uses this commentary in his argument of the impact that writers have, contending, on the act of writing itself, that, “If we read aloud what we have written, our breath carries our words into the air.”

In 1985, Dr. Eugene Redmond, a bestselling poet and Professor of English, interviewed Toni Morrison and asked her about racism. Morrison answered, “Racists always try to make you think they are the majority, but they never are. It’s always the minority against all of the poor, all of the women, or all of the blacks.” In this interview, Morrison also spoke about some themes of her writing, “…I began to talk about innocence and victimization of black, poor girls.” It is clear from Morrison that through writing she had a vested interest in telling stories that weren’t being told in a way that was not accepted at the time, based on Redmond’s statement that Morrison’s “works terrify many male writers and critics.” With writing, she seized on an opportunity to create awareness in her community—which was the writing community—about themes that were not being written about. She wrote about these things, in this case, the “victimization” of black girls in poverty, and even though critics didn’t like it, she went on to be the first black woman to win a Nobel Prize in Literature, further empowering black women in her industry and everywhere else. This is an example of the impact a writer can have in a community that needs positive change.

Hunter S. Thompson, the self-proclaimed “doctor of journalism,” wrote about very different themes in the 1960s and 70s, yet also managed to make an impact on his community. While fully embraced by Rolling Stone, Thompson’s method of communication and writing was rejected by organizations who had already hired him, such as Sports Illustrated. His most famous piece, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, used a style of journalism that inserted the author into the narrative as if they were a part of the story, what would become to be known as Gonzo. Thompson did not seem to care that his methods, way of life, and even his writing were being rejected; he did it anyway and is now one of the most famous journalists of all time. Thompson of course took his own life in 2005 for reasons that are not exactly clear. Jann S. Wenner, former Editor of of Rolling Stone, contends that, like Hemingway, Thompson’s suicide is part of the reason he is so celebrated or romanticized as a journalist. Regardless of the reasons for his fame, however, the fact remains that Thompson’s impact was that he refused to do anything like anyone else, and the result was that he changed journalism forever.

In her journal Using Nonfiction to Advocate for Change, Hunter College Associate Professor Jody Polleck sought to answer one question: “How do authors inspire change through their writing?” In an effort to “inspire students so they can explore how writers use language to move people to make a difference,” Polleck considered non-fiction texts, such as memoirs and essays, which are “now mandated by the Common Core.” Adding these non-fiction texts to her classroom and lesson plan, Polleck says, empowered her students to “use writing approached to voice their own arguments and narratives with the goal of raising awareness in others.” Standardizing writing for positive change in the classroom could lead to endless potential in our generation’s future writers, many of whom may idolize the famous writers presented here.

Morrison and Thompson, and also Berry, have undoubtedly had a positive impact on their communities by creating positive change in society and in the process, inspiring past, current, and future writers. I can’t say whether Berry, Morrison, and Thompson did this because they believed we are in a society or period that does not value literacy, or for another reason, but this society certainly values their contributions to literacy now, and in my interpretation, contributions to community by writers like Morrison and Thompson encompasses Berry’s belief that “writers now, as never before, must keep aware that literacy is their trade, until now a trade of supreme importance.”

References

Berry, W. (2015). Kentucky Writers in Kentucky. Appalachian Heritage, Volume 43, Number 1, p. 36-42.  Retrieved from https://muse.jhu.edu/article/596008.

Denard, C. (2008). Toni Morrison: Conversations. University Press of Missisippi, p. 29-31. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/2GYmGNp

Doyle, P. (2019.) How Hunter S. Thompson Became a Legend. Rolling Stone. Retrieved from https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-news/rolling-stone-at-50-how-hunter-s-thompson-became-a-legend-115371/.

Encyclopaedia Britannica Editors. (2019). Hunter S. Thompson. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Hunter-S-Thompson#ref837474.

Feldman, L. (2019). Toni Morrison Was Writing a New Novel When She Died. Time. Retrieved from https://time.com/5645194/toni-morrison-new-novel-before-death/.

Hunter College. Jody Polleck. Hunter College. Retrieved from https://education.hunter.cuny.edu/about/faculty-staff/jody-polleck/.

New York University Arthur L. Carter Institute Faculty. (2012.) The 100 Outstanding Journalists in the United States in the Last 100 Years. New York University. Retrieved from https://journalism.nyu.edu/about-us/news/the-100-outstanding-journalists-in-the-united-states-in-the-last-100-years/.

Polleck, J. (2016). Using Nonfiction to Advocate for Change. English Journal: High School Edition, Volume 105, Issue 4, p. 55-62. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.proxy-library.ashford.edu/docview/1774319020/abstract/5E446ACC86C44052PQ/1?accountid=32521